ELMSFORD — Hoping to bring attention to the problem of childhood hunger in one of the wealthiest regions of the nation, U.S. Rep. Nita Lowey and Kevin Concannon, under secretary for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, toured the Food Bank for Westchester on Thursday.
"In the United States of America, people shouldn't go hungry — especially children," said Lowey, D-Harrison, whose 17th Congressional District includes portions of Westchester and the Bronx and all of Rockland County. "I think it's just obscene."
Concannon said hunger among children increases this time of year.
"And in the summer, when schools are not open (to provide breakfast and lunch programs) a child is much more likely to go hungry," he said.
The Food Bank for Westchester says one-in-five county residents are "food insecure" and 33 percent of those — about 66,000 — are children. About 25,000 Westchester students in grades five and under receive free or reduced price lunches during the school year.
In Rockland County, according to People to People for Rockland, 9.5 percent of residents are at risk for hunger, including 13,641 children who are enrolled in nutrition programs during the school year.
Lowey and Concannon said Congress is overdue to pass a Child Nutrition Reauthorization bill that would renew a number of temporarily extended food programs that are set to expire on Sept. 30. Of particular importance, they said, is a need to expand a Summer Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) for Children pilot program that helps youngsters receive food benefits when school is out; a Republican proposal would shrink that program, they said.
Elmsford Schools Superintendent Joseph Ricca, who participated in a panel discussion with other advocates following the tour, said too many children "are living in a constant state of uncertainty and anxiety about finding their next nutritious meal," adding that it's important to help needy families "by providing them with opportunities to secure the food they need during these challenging times."
The real-life effect of the lack of summertime nutrition programs for children was described by Diane Haltner, a nutritionist from Head Start in Rockland. She said a 12-year-old girl in her program weighs 275 pounds, noting that kids tend to gain weight over the summer because they don't have access to healthy food.
"They head to the bodega and eat snacks instead," she said.
Joe Allen, chairman of People to People for Rockland, said the number of residents receiving services from the group has increased virtually every month since the 2008 recession began.
Food Bank for Westchester President Ellen Lynch said the visit from Lowey and Concannon "really helps us elevate the discussion and brings attention to the problem of hunger in the region."